- Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts
In recent years, conversations about the enslavement of African Americans in the United States have increased in frequency and intensity, often manifesting in social media, academia, and public spaces. These conversations—explorations of "America's Original Sin," which have been led by everyone from scholars of African American history to Hollywood filmmakers who have brought well-known slave narratives to life on the big screen—have contributed greatly to popular understandings of the institution, the language used to describe the experiences of enslaved men and women, and interpretations of their lives in public spaces. In Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, historians Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts further animate these conversations by exploring how the city of Charleston, South Carolina, has historically confronted and memorialized its slaveholding past. Using a variety of primary and archival sources, including letters and personal accounts of prominent and lesser-known black and white residents of Charleston, Kytle and Roberts paint a vivid picture of how the city has struggled to define its history and shape public memory of its significant events and spaces.
Denmark Vesey 's Garden begins with an exploration of the importance of slavery in the South Carolina Lowcountry and follows with a close examination of race relations, iconography, and public memory during the post-Civil War period and the era of Jim Crow. The authors' analysis of the creation of the myth of the Lost Cause and their efforts to illuminate how black Charlestonians challenged white southerners' memories of enslavement and emancipation will be useful to scholars interested in the shaping of public memory in the South. Indeed, the authors' examination of the counternarratives that black Charlestonians presented to repudiate increasingly popular representations of slavery and the Civil War is arguably the most insightful and engaging part of the text.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the work is when the authors demonstrate how control of public memory is intimately connected to cultural and social power struggles. This work is a discussion about a contest for control of the past. One cannot sit down and read Denmark Vesey's Garden without contemplating who defines history, who makes decisions about the value of historical experiences, and ultimately, who decides if these histories should be taught in schools and presented in public spaces. Using Charleston, one of America's most historic cities and a space whose history is intimately linked to the purchase and enslavement of African Americans, Kytle and Roberts explore how black and white citizens viewed the violence used to arrest and reverse the gains made during Reconstruction and to enable the rise of Jim Crow. Throughout the book, the authors skillfully examine how U.S. society has wrestled with these and other questions in public spaces. The chapters exploring how Charleston's black and white citizens earn income off their histories via [End Page 447] heritage tourism, and the impact that the discussion of slavery has on tourists and docents, are illuminating.
Kytle and Roberts conclude Denmark Vesey's Garden with an examination of the 2014 memorialization of Denmark Vesey's 1822 rebellion, suggesting that African Americans and white progressives "have succeeded in resurrecting a more truthful memory of slavery" (p. 338). The authors also pose a very profound and unnerving question to the reader by asking if these efforts are in vain in an age when misinformation and lies inundate computer screens and social media. Without doubt, this question will cause readers to think about recent incidents of violence committed by white supremacists. These incidents include the massacre in June 2015 of nine African Americans at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the August 2017 white supremacist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the...